Melanesia and Indigenous Australia: white privilege and the ‘rule of law’
… first, I made him know his Name should be Friday, which was the Day I sav’d his Life; I call’d him so for the Memory of the Time; I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my Name.
Daniel Defoe (1719), Robinson Crusoe
In the Nineteenth Century Robinson Crusoe gave rise to many imitations in which white lads were cast up on imaginary islands where they proceeded to demonstrate their cultural and moral superiority to the indigenous people of the area. Other adventure stories of the time dispensed with the island setting, but nonetheless maintained the Crusoe themes of struggle and survival to inscribe the white/non-white dualism in colonial contexts. Thankfully, most of these ‘Boy’s only’ adventure stories are now deservedly forgotten, though for those who have an interest in them, they are generally available and conservatively priced in the ‘old and collectables’ shelves in many second-hand bookshops. While forgotten, these ‘Boy’s only’ stories about white/non-white dualism in colonial societies were very influential in their time and have had a lasting effect on the way white people view indigenous people to this day.
R.M. Ballantyne, perhaps best remembered for his adventure novel, The Coral Island  was one of the more widely read ‘Boy’s only’ adventure writers of his time. Ballantyne’s The Dog Crusoe and his Master is one of the better Crusoe themed adventure stories which dispensed with the island setting. The Dog Crusoe and his Master is set in the United States in the early days of westward expansion and focuses on a band of ‘heroic’ white hunters who are depicted as innately superior to the native Indians:
It has always been found in the experience of Indian life that a few resolute white men well-armed were more than a match for ten times their number of Indians. And this arose not so much from the superior strength or agility of Whites over their red foes, as from that bull-dog courage and utter recklessness of their lives in combat – qualities which the crafty savage can neither imitate nor understand.
If you take the time to sit down and read The Dog Crusoe and his Master, which is not an utterly wasted experience, the reader will discover that the whites are also portrayed as being morally superior, while the Indians are shown to be aggressive, cruel and deceitful. The stated aim of the white protagonists is to make peace with the tribes, treating them honestly and mercifully, and permitting one group to go free even though they had captured two hunters with the intention of killing them. The actual history of white expansion is ignored and replaced with a flattering myth.
The problem with ‘Boy’s own’ type literature is that while the novels themselves have been largely forgotten, the messages they contained have become hardwired into the psyche of post-colonial society and manifest in unexpected ways. An example of a modern manifestation of the Crusoe type interaction between white/non-white is “Wonderboy”. This video game was created by a company called Fujin in California that makes games exclusively for the Sidekick.
The hero of the game, Wonderboy, is searching for his lost girlfriend, Tanya. Wonderboy is portrayed the way typical heroes are portrayed — white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes. During the course of the game, in order to advance, Wonderboy must kill some of the “natives” he encounters, with the ultimate goal of killing the “brutish king” and rescuing his girl.
According to the game description, “With an ax in hand, nothing will stop you (Wonderboy) from saving her: not even a few bats, spiders, and other gruesome creatures.” The “gruesome creatures” are of course, the indigenous-looking characters, the natives.
What Wonderboy and other games like it are doing is reinforcing the Crusoe message; Indigenous people or “the natives” are not really humans, and so white people need not consider us being important in their world. In a sense, these messages inform what today we call ‘White Privilege’.
In reality, the biggest problem with White Privilege is that white people are born with it so they never have to acknowledge it as a “Thing.” There was never a day when they didn’t have it. They never had to live without it and then wake up one day to see a package of White Privilege in the mail.
White Privilege is not only something you don’t think about, it’s also something that is not discussed in ‘polite society’. Not only is it not being discussed, more significantly, many people aren’t even aware of the term. I’m not opposed to earned privilege – the privilege that is, which comes from individual excellence, whether that excellence is intellectual or commercial is unimportant – what is important is that the privilege was earned. What is unacceptable, is privilege that derives solely or predominately from the hue of one’s skin or from one’s ethnic origins.
Racism is man’s gravest threat to man–the maximum hatred for a minimum of reason. Abraham Heschel
A privilege attaching to an individual based solely on the hue of their skin is called racism. Racism or the type of racism Abraham Heschel describes in his aforementioned quote, is active racism. Racism does not have to be active; it can be subtle, or more insidiously, it can be imperceptible, just part of the way things are done or are. Another way of expressing this would to be to coin a term such as “White Privilege”, for example.
Australia and the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific
While Defoe and Ballantyne wrote about white/non-white dualism in the America’s, the same type of forces were at work in Australia and the Pacific and as would be expected, the results were very much the same. Every Indigenous person living in Australia or in the so called ‘arc of instability’ are to the mind of White Australia. Nothing more than Friday’s, we are expected to know our Name and our place in ‘white’ society, which is to call whitie by his name Master! In this relationship, the Indigenous person will never be equal; a scorned side-kick, but never an equal.
It is because of this Crusoe type mentality, that organisations, such as, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (“DFAT”) and the Australian Federal Police (“AFP”) believe that it is acceptable to artificially construct circumstances in which Indigenous peoples can be arrested in questionable circumstances. The most recent, but by no means isolated example of this type of behaviour is the disgraceful manner in which DFAT and the AFP treated the Prime Minister of Vanuatu when they arrested his private secretary Clarence Marae at Sydney Airport late last month.
Mr Marae was arrested on ten year old fraud related charges. I have no problems with criminals being brought to justice. What I have a problem with is when white authorities construct artificial situations so that they can apprehend Indigenous suspects, while at the same time refusing to arrest white suspects living under their noses in Canberra. To date, the AFP have refused to charge the white assailant of Ms King, who is Australia’s most senior Indigenous female bank executive. They won’t arrest and charge her assailant because she is Indigenous and her assailant is a well-connected white Canberra beaurocrat. This is despite the fact that as late as November last year she brought the matter to the attention of Mr Brendon Smyth, Deputy Leader of the Canberra Liberals and member of the ACT Legislative Assembly.
Like R.M. Ballantyne’s The Dog Crusoe and his Master, the AFP are ignoring actual history and replacing it with a flattering myth about white morally superiority versus Indigenous cruelty, aggressiveness, and deceitfulness. What the indigenous people of the Pacific need to remember is that in Australia the word justice has been replaced with ‘just-us’, meaning that white justice is just for white people and injustice becomes the norm for the Indigenous peoples of the region. Injustices which range from condoning genocide in West Papua to kidnapping the Attorney-General of the Solomon Islands to treating the Prime Minister of Vanuatu in a highhanded and disrespectful manner.
The university upon the hill,
had a professor
Who’s bizarrely thrilled
To list all of the oppressors —
Past, present, and future — who have killed.
Are killing, and will kill the indigenous.
O, he names the standard suspects —
Rich, white, and unjust —
And I, a blak man, think he’s correct,
But why does he have to be so humourless?
And how can he, a white man, fondly speak
Of our doomed culture,
That, he sent to Hell?
The professor says, “Muslim people
From all Muslim tribes
Will burn skyscrapers and Christian Church steeples.
They’ll speak Arabic and carry guns and knives.
Australia, can’t you see that immigration
has doomed our culture to Hell”
All I can do is laugh and laugh
And say, “Damn, you’ve got some imagination.
You should write a screenplay about this shit —
About some fictional city,
Grown fat and pale and pretty,
That’s destroyed by an immigration apocalypse.”
The professor doesn’t speak. He shakes his head
And assaults me with his pity.
I wonder how he can believe
That an uncontrolled foreign influx will cause his death.
I think that he thinks he’s the new Jesus.
He’s eager to get on that cross
And pay the ultimate cost
Its hard to see racism when you’re white
Adapted from an original poem by Sherman Alexie who self-identifies as a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian.